English footballers habitually stay moored to home shores but, after seven straight seasons ably guarding Barnsley’s goal, nobody could begrudge Luke Steele trading the prospect of League One football for title challenges and European expeditions.
The former Manchester United and England youth international traded mushy peas for moussaka and, only three days after arriving, was training under Athens’ scorching sun. Yet, he could never have predicted the indelible mark the Club’s mythology would leave on his heart.
“It’s the best thing I ever did in my entire career hands down,” Luke Steele says, looking back on his three seasons with Panathinaikos with unwavering affection.
I didn’t realise I’d fall in love with Panathinaikos. Once you’re there it becomes your whole life. I really did get attached. It can be hard to fathom if you haven’t seen or experienced the people because once you’ve got those feelings and emotions for a club you stick by it. I absolutely loved what I was a part of and I’ll never forget it.
The 35ºC heat was more of a sear than a sun-blush, but Steele was undeterred and as the English leagues braced themselves for the dregs of winter, he was jetting off to Eindhoven for his Europa League debut.
It was one of the most nerve-wracking games I’ve ever played. I was quite new to the Club, quite new to the players. It sounds silly but I didn’t know if I was capable of playing Europa League football. You get categorised into a standard and I’d never done it before. It gave the confidence to say ‘yeah I can do it’. That was a big moment for my whole career and I knew the move had already been worth it just to play that one game.
Steele cemented his position as Panathinaikos’ goalkeeping citadel, where he would remain for the rest of the season. He immersed himself in the Club’s passionate philosophy, the culture and the surroundings, becoming the first English name to be emblazoned upon the Panathinaikos strip.
After half a season, he had adapted and became a part of their ancient history. The reputation of Greece’s hostile, bordering on war-like, atmospheres have taken on their own mythological reputation and Steele, rather than shrinking from it, embraced the fervent fans.
100 strong turned up [at the training ground] on their motorbikes and, although they look like people you don’t really want to mess with, the first time it happened I was so inspired. You hear from some of the central fans, who come every week, and you see what the clubs all about. They’ll say their piece and the passion they expect because that’s what they live for. There are never any cameras so you’ll never see any footage of it. It’s a private moment. They are the sort of experiences you’re never going to get in England.
After three years in shadows of the Acropolis, Steele returned to England to be closer to his family and newborn daughter. He joined Bristol City, where he’s now flying high, pushing for promotion to the Premier League, and riding a crest of momentum from their brilliant cup run. The comparative minnows claimed a shock victory over his former club, Manchester United, and he savoured every moment.
I don’t care what Jose or anybody else might say about it. Our lads were fantastic on the night. We had that little bit of luck and composure and it was just fairytale the way we won it. It was one of those special wins. A great result and one I’ll never forget.
Steele’s audacity had seen him desert home comforts, fling himself into the deep-end, and re-emerge triumphant, with a boatload of unparalleled experiences.
The threat of lower-league football has long retreated and, entering the peak of his career, the future beckons brightly. And, while many footballers dare not look too far beyond what is a short career, Steele is already working on his admirable ambition upon his retirement.
In 2014, he co-founded the Youth Dreams Project with Luke Kennedy, a long-time friend from the Peterborough United youth set-up. They want to give back to their beloved hometown and, with the help of a fantastic team, are providing top-class coaching in the local area.
We wanted to give children the opportunity, not necessarily to become professional footballers but to play and enjoy the sport in a good environment. A lot of the reasons why they don’t is because there aren’t the opportunities [in Peterborough] so we want to make it really easy for the people in the area. I’m totally inspired by what the project is doing and everybody I take is blown away by how many kids are enjoying what we do.
It’s a refreshingly unselfish aspiration in a sport which is terminally clouded by financial endeavours and is a testament to Steele’s character. His great experiences as a professional will inspire the next generation in Peterborough, but not before he makes his Premier League debut.
To find out more about the Youth Dreams Project, visit: www.youthdreamsproject.co.uk.